Lessons from Scotland and Wales: Incorporating international human rights standards in Northern Ireland

July 3, 2023

Lessons from Scotland and Wales:  

Incorporating international human rights standards in Northern Ireland 

The Human Rights Consortium recently held an online conference which brought together academics and civil society representatives to explore the advances made in Scotland and Wales to incorporate international human rights treaties and standards into domestic law and what the lessons could be for Northern Ireland in our own journey towards incorporating those same international protections.  

Northern Ireland has a long history of campaigning for the adoption of international human rights standards, with the primary focus being on achieving this through a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. Ideally, this Bill of Rights would incorporate the full suite of United Nations human rights treaties currently ratified by the United Kingdom, and this proposal holds wide public and increasing political support in Northern Ireland.  

Despite this, the UK Government continues to refuse to deliver that Bill of Rights originally promised in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement over twenty-five years ago. This combined with a stagnated political environment (which has failed to deliver domestic development of human rights legislation) has meant the development of local progressive human rights legislation has ground to a standstill during the lifetime of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In this context, activist groups and civil society organisations in Northern Ireland continue to seek a range of mechanisms and methodologies to secure the advancement of additional human rights and human rights treaties domestically, as is the case in both Scotland and Wales. 

The Scottish Government passed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill IN 2021 to put the children’s rights convention directly into Scots law. The Scottish Government has now also committed to introducing a new Human Rights Bill for Scotland. This Bill will incorporate four more major United Nations human rights treaties (ICESCR, CERD, CEDAW & CRPD) and will protect the right to a healthy environment, as well as rights for older people and LGBTQi people. 

At the conference Nicole Busby, Professor in Human Rights, Equality and Justice at University of Glasgow outlined how current developments in Scotland are aimed at providing a means of advancing economic, social, cultural and environmental rights by way of the incorporation of international human rights treaties into Scottish law​. Professor Busby also highlighted the importance of political will, a positive public conception of human rights, collaboration between civil society and political institutions and the capacity for local delivery as key lessons from the process in Scotland so far. 

In Wales, the UNCRC was embedded into Welsh devolved law by the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 and currently the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales is deliberating on possible reforms to Welsh laws that may include additional human rights laws. 

Simon Hoffman, Human Rights Consultant and Associate Professor at Swansea University spoke on recommendations for the future, such as suggestions that the Welsh Government should introduce primary legislation to give effect to international human rights in Welsh law through a Human Rights (Wales) Act to make select international human rights part of Welsh law so that they are binding on Welsh Ministers and public authorities in the exercise of devolved functions and may be enforced by a court or tribunal.​  

We then heard from Mhairi Snowden, Director of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, Charles Whitmore, Research Associate and Brexit Civil Society Forum Coordinator, and Kevin Hanratty, Director of the Human Rights Consortium comparing the civil society experiences across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland including the challenges faced by civil society organisations themselves in each devolved nation.  

Paddy Kelly, Director of the Children’s Law Centre and Nuala Toman, Head of Policy at Disability Action in Northern Ireland then gave an overview of devolved lessons in Northern Ireland through the lens of UNCRPD and UNCRC incorporation. They referenced these international standards in terms of law, policy and practice, discussed the idea of incorporation by stealth, the limits of current approaches without further reform, the strength of public support for human rights and why the preferred model is direct incorporation​. 

The event was hosted by Professor Colin Harvey from the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast who closed by commenting on the clear appetite to see effective implementation of international human rights standards in devolved settings and the extensive engagement with international mechanisms. Professor Harvey highlighted the necessity of continuing to share the lessons and experiences across the UK and working together on a sustained basis to overcome existing legal and political obstacles.  

Downloadable Resources

Download Nicole Busby Presentation

Nicole Busby Presentation

Download Simon Hoffman Presentation

Simon Hoffman Presentation

Download Nuala Toman Presentation

Nuala Toman Presentation


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